08 June 2012

How the Doctrine of Kamma Changes Over Time

Anubis weighing the soul of Ani the Scribe against the Law to decide his fate in the afterlife. Egyptian Book of the Dead.
EVER SINCE I FIRST published my article on the confession of King Ajātasattu in the Samaññaphala Sutta (Journal of Buddhist Ethics), I have wanted to write a follow-up essay which showed how the idea of karma changed after the early Buddhist period. I'm using this post as a sketch to be filled out later. More recently, I outlined a possible pre-history of the idea of karma, linking it to Egyptian ideas about how morality affected the afterlife transmitted to India via Iran, which then interacted with local Indian beliefs. In this essay I will look at some milestones along the route of a major change that happened to Buddhist moral theory as it moved out of its 'early' phase, in particular, the early ideas of the Pure Land (first centuries CE), the Mahāyāna version of the Samaññaphala Sutta (ca. 5th century CE) , and a special mantra which appears for the first time in the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha (ca. 7th century).

In the early Buddhist theory the results of actions are inescapable; there is nothing that stands between us and the consequences of our actions, not death, not god or the Buddha, and no form of praxis. The Buddhist commentators came to see this belief as epitomised in Dhammapada Verse 127:
Not in the sky, nor the middle of the ocean,
Nor in a mountain cave;
Though terrified, there is nowhere on earth
Where one might escape from an evil action.
Buddhaghosa, cites this verse, for example, in his commentary on the Mahāpadāna Sutta while explaining the term dhammatā, 'naturalness'. He uses it to explain the inevitability of karma (kamma-niyāma), which is one of the five niyāmas. In the Ajātasattu article I cite a couple of texts which suggest ways in which one might lessen the impact of the consequences of our previous actions, but there is no way to avoid them entirely. This is a distinctive moral teaching of the Early Buddhists, and yet precisely this aspect of Buddhist morality changes.

In the Samaññaphala Sutta, King Ajātasattu is troubled by his conscience and goes to meet the Buddha. During the meeting, he confesses that he has killed his father (and the Buddha's friend and patron), King Bimbisāra. The Buddha accepts this news, and acknowledges that the King wishes to return to lawfulness. However, when Ajātasattu leaves, the Buddha says to the bhikkhus "the king is wounded (khatāya), and done for (upahatāya)" (D i.86). Had Ajātasattu not killed his father, he would have attained the dhammacakkhu after hearing the Dhamma discourse. What’s more, patricide is one the five actions which result in immediate rebirth in hell after death. The patricide is said to be atekiccha, 'incurable' or 'unpardonable' (see A iii.146). Buddhaghosa's commentary records that on death Ajātasattu goes straight to the Hell of Copper Kettles. Note that his comeuppance comes only after death, and compare my conjecture that the notion of being judged on your actions after death was introduced to India from Iran. In M 130 we find that a trip to hell lasts for as long as it takes for the consequences to play out; i.e., one was not repeatedly reborn in hell, but more on the development of rebirth theory next week.

In my article, I showed that when Ajātasattu is told the Buddha of having killed his own father he cannot be considered to be 'making amends' (as modern translators suggest), nor does the Buddha 'forgive' him, since such a thing is not in his power. Incidentally, I showed that everyone (including both translators and lexicographers) had previously misinterpreted the word paṭikaroti and the phrase yathādhammā paṭikaroti (returning to lawfulness). Ajātasattu confesses and makes a resolution to return to moral behaviour. The Buddha simply acknowledges the confession and resolution, and does not intervene in any way, because in this system of morality he cannot.

In this worldview we are each the heirs of our own actions (c.f. the five facts to reflect on) and literally nothing can change that. Indeed, I would argue that karma can hardly be expected to work as a moral deterrent unless this is true. But it seems that Buddhists found this limitation too onerous, and introduced ways to first limit and then eliminate the damage done to themselves by evil actions.

The Samaññaphala Sutta has survived in several versions preserved in the Chinese Canon, and a fragment in Sanskrit (Sanskrit title: Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra), which have been studied by MacQueen (1988). In the Pāli sutta, the Ajātasattu story is relatively unimportant and merely frames the important middle section of the sutta dealing with heterodox teachings. MacQueen shows that the later versions make the meeting of the Buddha and Ajātasattu the most important feature, and finds the middle section relatively unimportant. One Chinese version (C1 in MacQueen’s notation) says of Ajātasattu “his transgression is diminished; he has removed a weighty offence” (p.48-49). C2 has by contrast “he has completely done away with imperfections and impurities and is free from the Outflows [āsravas]” (p.69) which is to say that just meeting the Buddha completely purifies Ajātasattu, releases him from the consequences of killing his father, and elevates him to awakening. On this change MacQueen comments: “In the 5th century A.D. this religious event [Ajātasattu’s conversion] was of far more interest than the issue of whether or not there were immediate fruits to the life of a monk” and that “the more depraved the person is who is saved, the more the Buddha’s divine power is demonstrated” (p.215).
A major change has taken place in Buddhist doctrine somewhere between the closing of the Pāli Canon and ca. 5th century AD (when the Chinese copies of the Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra were made).

A related development occurred in the Akṣobhyavyūha and Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras (ca 1st or 2nd centuries BCE) which heralded the possibility of a new eschatology. It seems that the original idea was that with a lot of dedication and practice one might attain the Pure Land of Akṣobhya, and from there liberation was certain. However, Akṣobhya's Pure Land was soon eclipsed by Amitābha's. The Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras set forth a soteriology in which if we simply call the name of Amitābha he will meet us at death and guide us to Sukhāvatī from where we are guaranteed awakening. Indeed, the idea of Akṣobhya's Pure Land was so deeply buried that it was only rediscovered in the 20th century (see Nattier 2000) We have only to reflect on the enormous and wide ranging influence of Pure Land Buddhism throughout Asia, found in every branch of Mahāyana Buddhism, to see what a very appealing idea this possibility of being saved was, especially amongst the ordinary population of Buddhist countries. 'Calling the name' of the Buddha as a practice seemed to come under the wing of the old practice of buddhānusati/buddhānusmṛti (recollecting the superior qualities of the Buddha), the two together constituting key prototypes for the Tantric visualisation of a Buddha accompanied by chanting their mantra. There are some precedents in the Mahāvastu, which probably date from a century or two earlier than the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras, and the 'calling the name' practice is linked to mantra chanting in the Kāraṇḍavyūha Sūtra (ca. 4th century).

However, the change expounded in the Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra is still not as revolutionary as what was to come. The Śrāmaṇyaphala Sūtra allows that in the past someone who met the Buddha might be saved from the evil consequences of their actions, which reinforced the specialness of the Buddha, but was not immediately relevant to present day practitioners who lived in a time which was many centuries removed from the Buddha. However, the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras show that the idea of the Buddha as an eternally living presence was beginning to take hold. Indeed, this is a key metaphysical problem in another popular Mahāyāna text: the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra (or Golden Light Sūtra). Here the puzzle is that though merit making extends life, and the Buddha is said to have infinite merit, yet he appeared to live a normal human lifespan. In response to this question the Bodhisattva Ruciraketu has a vision in which it is revealed to him (by a maṇḍala of Buddhas) that, in fact, the lifespan of Śākyamuni is infinite. And, of course, this is good news to those who believe that one must be in the presence of a living Buddha to attain awakening because now the Buddha is always living, and always accessible.

The metaphysical problems introduced by an eternal Buddha (which is a form of sassatavāda; Skt śāśvatavāda) seem to have been outweighed by the soteriological possibilities.

The process of change that I have been tracking with respect to the doctrine of karma reaches its apotheosis in a Tantric text composed in the late 7th or early 8th century: the Sarvatathāgata-tattvasaṃgraha. This text survives in two Sanskrit manuscripts (though they are copies from a much later date) as well as in Chinese and Tibetan versions). It is in this text, perhaps the first to expound a mature Tantric Buddhism, that we find the Hundred Syllable Vajrasattva Mantra or hṛdaya as the text calls it. (See, also, my article in the Western Buddhist Review. 5). This hṛdaya mantra stands apart from the surrounding text, by which I mean it seems to be a distinct idea and is not integrated into a sādhana or other practice. However, it is accompanied by a few lines before and after which give it some context. This context is the one which will be familiar, I imagine, to all tantrikas, since it explicitly says that the mantra will purify a person, and make liberation possible for them when their vow keeping has become lax, no matter what evil acts they have committed.

Tantric Buddhism, then, appears to admit no impediment to liberation, no action so heinous that it will make liberation impossible in this life. Whatever evil one has committed, one simply chants the Vajrasattva Mantra and one is released from the consequences of wicked actions. It does not require grace or intercession from a god; one's sins are simply set aside through the chanting of the mantra. I find this extraordinary, but I know from first hand experience that some tantrikas take this quite literally.

This is surely one of the most dramatic and far-reaching changes in the history of Buddhist ideas. Our doctrine is completely turned on its head over the course of several centuries. And these are not the only variations. S 36.21 outlines why we cannot consider karma to be responsible for everything that happens to us. Some scholars have seen the post-Canonical development of the five-fold niyāma as a continuation of this idea, though this, in large part, seems to stem from innovations introduced by Mrs Rhys Davids, and is not really supported by the texts which discuss the niyāmas. However, in present day Tibetan Buddhism the doctrine is that everything that happens to us is because of our karma.

There is no single unified Theory of Karma in Buddhism, either synchronically (in our time) or diachronically (across time). Instead, there are multiple theories, and very many exegetes explaining the "Truth" of karma. Some of these 'truths' are mutually exclusive. Sectarians tend not to be conversant with the details of the different theories, since sectarian teachers present their version of karma as the Truth. Those who are conversant with a range of karma theories find them difficult to reconcile. 'Actions have consequences' is what it boils down to, but it's hard to see this as a great revelation from the Buddha, since everyone knows this platitude already. The how and when of actions having consequences are Buddhism's specific contribution to moral theory, but unfortunately Buddhists themselves disagree on precisely these points.



Chinese Versions of the Śramaṇyaphla Sūtra studied by MacQueen:

C1. 沙門果經 Shāmén guǒ jīng (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T01n0001:長阿含經 (Dīrghāgama). Translated 413CE Buddhayaśas (佛陀耶舍) and Zhú Fúniàn (竺佛念). CBETA T01n0001_p0107a16-114b02: http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T01/0001_017.htm

C2. 寂志果經 Jì zhì guǒ jīng (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra). T01n0022. Not part of a collection. Trans. 381-395 CE by 竺曇無蘭Zhú Tánwúlán. CBETA: http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T01/0022_001.htm

C3. Untitled. but referred to as 無根信 Wúgēn xìn ('Faith Without Roots' = Skt. amūlakā śraddhā) T02n125p762a07 ff. (Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T02n0125: 增壹阿含經 (Ekottarikāgama) T 2.124: 762-764. 7th sūtra, 39th fascicle, 43rd section. Trans either 384 CE or 397 CE uncertainty depends on who translated the text. CBETA http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T02/0125_039.htm

C4. Untitled e (T24.1450.205a09) (=partial version of Śrāmaṇyaphala sūtra) in T24.1450根本說一切有部毘奈耶破僧事 (Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Saṃghabheda-vastu). Translated 710 CE by 義淨Yìjìng. CBETA http://www.cbeta.org/result/normal/T24/1450_020.htm

Note that each of the four versions is in a different place in the Canon: Dīrghāgama (= Pāli Dīgha Nikāya); stand-alone; Ekottarikāgama (= Pāli Aṅguttara Nikāya); and Vinaya.

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